Creating a Visual or Tactile Marker
By Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA
If you’ve been in our classes, you probably know that the first thing we talk about is teaching your dog a marker word. “Good”, “Good dog”, “Yes” – you pick a word and then repeat the sequence of word followed by treat. In your dog’s brain, this creates a connection between the word and excited feelings of eating yummy treats. Then, we use that marker word to communicate to our dog when his behavior is going to result in a yummy treat, making those good behaviors go up in frequency – yay!
But, let’s say your dog can’t hear you. Sometimes, dogs lose their hearing as they age, or sometimes, your dog is at a distance or there is lots of other noise to interfere. If your dog makes a really excellent behavior choice in this situation, you still want to be able to provide feedback. Here’s an example: Aussie Payton is looking out the picture window while I’m outside mowing the front lawn. His neighborhood nemesis Chocolate lab goes bounding by on a leash. Payton watches calmly without barking. Hooray! But how do I communicate how much I loved his behavior when he can’t hear me? A visual marker.
Teaching a visual marker is the same process as teaching a marker word. Pick a visual marker. A thumbs up, a peace sign, an OK sign – it can be whatever you want as long as it doesn’t look like a signal your dog already knows (e.g. don’t use a flat palm if that’s what your stay signal looks like). Show your dog the marker, then feed a treat. Repeat until, eventually, you show your dog the marker and he starts to look excited. In trainer speak, we call that a CER – conditioned emotional response. Basically your dog knows something good is on the way when he sees that signal.
You might also want to consider teaching a tactile marker. Dogs can lose vision with age, or some dogs are born with both visual and auditory impairments (“double merle” dogs often have these issues). These dogs might benefit from learning a specific touch as a marker. Choose a touch that your dog doesn’t find aversive (for example, many dogs dislike being patted on top of the head), and follow it with a treat. For example, touch the dog on the shoulder, then treat. Repeat until you get that CER (the “where’s my treat?” response), and you’ve taught a tactile marker.
Now you can communicate that you liked your dog’s behavior in any situation! Happy training!